How retail crime is at the forefront of the public’s mind - Dr Alan Billings

My emails are a barometer for what is on the mind of the public as far as crime and anti-social behaviour is concerned. When I was first the Police and Crime Commissioner, almost ten years ago now, I was overwhelmed with emails about the 101 service.

Then it was about the tree-felling in Sheffield. During and after the Covid-19 lockdowns it was speeding, especially in some of our smaller towns and villages.

This was followed by concerns about dangerous dogs.

While I still get emails about each of these from time to time, the volume has fallen away. But now, in the last couple of years, there has been a rise in something new: retail crime.

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Shoppers carrying bags on the high street. PIC: PAShoppers carrying bags on the high street. PIC: PA
Shoppers carrying bags on the high street. PIC: PA

I don’t just mean shoplifting for personal use, though there is and always was shoplifting of this kind. I have had emails of despair from small shopkeepers to large store managers.

I had the person responsible for security for a large national chain of shops contact me to say that their store in Doncaster was second in the list for the most incidents of theft – the first being in London.

A number of things seem to have changed – all for the worst.

First, shoplifting is becoming more and more brazen. Thieves are coming into shops of all sizes and simply helping themselves to high value, easy to take away, products. They don’t seem to care who sees them.

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Second, organised criminal gangs are involved. They operate in groups and over a wide area.

A regional spokesperson for a well-known chain of convenience stores told me that these gangs target particular places near to the M18 or M1, make their move and then get away along the motorways.

Third, they are becoming more abusive and even violent. I have now met a number of shop workers who speak about how over the years they have become more fearful at the prospect of these thieves coming in, because if they are challenged, verbal abuse can quickly become physical threat.

Fourth, because these thieves are brazen and operating during shop opening hours, members of the public are witnessing this and being affected by it as well. It can be a traumatic experience – though we probably have no way of knowing just how many people have been caused distress.

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It is, of course, a national and not just a local problem. In part it may be driven by the cost of living crisis – people struggle to make ends meet. But it also contributes to the cost of living crisis because stores are having to cover the losses from thefts as well as pay for more and more security, and these costs – many millions of pounds – are passed on to customers in higher prices.

So I was pleased to attend a symposium that South Yorkshire Police held last week. This brought together retailers, local and national, local authority officers and the police. We sought to understand just what was going on, what was driving it and what, collectively, we could do to tackle it.

I came away with one statistic running through my head. When you list where the demand for police service is coming from across South Yorkshire, most of the top ten hot spots are retail stores.

My email barometer was spot on again.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.

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